Trump’s exoneration of Saudi Crown Prince is blow for Turkey

Turkey faces a number of potential complications in its game of leaks about recordings.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Political game. People watch on a TV a speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a cafe in Istanbul, on October 23. (AFP)
Political game. People watch on a TV a speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a cafe in Istanbul, on October 23. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - The confirmation by US President Donald Trump that Washington will not take action against Riyadh following the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a serious blow for Turkey’s efforts to advance its own stances in a regional competition with Saudi Arabia. But Ankara is not giving up just yet.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is looking at options that are said to range from keeping up the public pressure on Riyadh to quietly burying the issue in return for political concessions.

Ever since Khashoggi’s death at the hands of Saudi agents during a visit to the country’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2, Ankara’s approach has been led by the overall aim of linking Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to the crime. The Erdogan government has leaked investigation results to the media with the purpose of demonstrating that the killing had been ordered by the highest levels of the Saudi government. Pro-government media have openly accused Crown Prince Mohammed of ordering Khashoggi’s death.

Trump’s statement on November 20 made it clear that his administration will not back punitive measures against the prince and will not support calls to strip him of his role as future king, something Ankara would like to see. The US president also mentioned that unnamed representatives of the Riyadh government had called Khashoggi a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The reference to the Brotherhood touches on a key part of the regional rivalry between Ankara and Riyadh. Turkey has been supporting the Brotherhood and hosting some of its leaders, while Saudi Arabia regards the group as a dangerous organisation implicated in terrorist activities. The Saudi crown prince called Turkey a member of a “triangle of evil” along with Iran and Islamist groups earlier this year.

Having failed to win over Trump for its own position, Ankara could try and boost efforts in the US Congress to force the administration to end support for Crown Prince Mohammed and to enact legislation introducing punitive US measures against Riyadh.

Part of that effort is Ankara’s continued attempts at influencing public opinion. Towards that end, media in Turkey have already started to publish excerpts of at least two alleged audio recordings that were created shortly before Khashoggi’s death and during the last minutes of his life. A prominent pro-government journalist said the audio files would be made public soon.

The leaks are intended to buttress Ankara’s attempts at settling scores not just with the Saudi monarchy but also with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt over the Khashoggi case.

“The conversations among the murderers, their conversations with Riyadh after committing the murder, dialogues that will prove the crown prince was the one who directly gave the order, perhaps the United Arab Emirates and Egyptian intelligence’s role in the incident, and as a matter of fact, information on Israeli intelligence’s ‘expertise’ or on the US leg of the murder may be revealed,” Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the Yeni Safak daily, wrote a day before Trump’s statement.

Karagul predicted the publication of the audio would make Crown Prince Mohammed’s position untenable and might also affect Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and a key ally of the Saudi crown prince. “The Saudi crown prince won’t be able to worm his way out of this one; regardless of the cover-up operations they carry out, regardless of the negotiations they attempt, saving this person under these circumstances will be impossible,” Karagul wrote. “What’s more, it will reach Mohammed bin Zayed, too.”

Ankara faces a number of potential complications in its game of leaks about recordings, however. The government is refusing to say how Turkish law enforcement agencies got their hands on audio recordings from within the Saudi consulate, leading to speculation that Turkey might have bugged the diplomatic compound and maybe other foreign missions as well. Speaking to the BBC’s Turkish service, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar denied the charge, but insisted: “We do not reveal the source of the audio tapes.”

Another unanswered question is why Turkish officials did not warn Khashoggi of a possible Saudi plot. Erdogan has said the suspected Saudi killing squad arrived in Turkey several days before Khashoggi’s death. The Hurriyet newspaper reported that the conspirators can be heard fine-tuning their plan to kill the journalist on an audio file recorded 15 minutes before Khashoggi entered the consulate.

Turkey also indicated that it is redoubling its efforts to internationalise the Khashoggi case in a bid to exert more pressure on Saudi Arabia, especially because attempts at provoking new sanctions on the part of Trump have visibly failed. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saudi Arabia’s cooperation over the investigation into the killing was not “at the desired level.” He added that Turkey would take formal steps to seek an international investigation if it reaches an “impasse” with Riyadh.

Cavusoglu also criticised Trump’s argument that trade relations with Saudi Arabia had to be protected. “This is a humanitarian issue. It concerns a murder,” the Turkish minister said. “It is not possible to say ‘our trade will increase, let’s cover this up, let’s ignore it.’”

Turkey’s strategy is not without risks for the country’s own credibility and international standing. Erdogan critics have pointed out that Ankara says it has a moral obligation to investigate the death of the journalist, while cracking down on free speech and journalists in Turkey itself.

Roland Popp, a security analyst in Zurich focusing on Middle Eastern affairs, said an international investigation could become an unwelcome precedent, given the record of Erdogan’s own country.

“He might well continue on the path of publicly shaming Saudi Arabia in the context of Turkish-Saudi tensions and competition for the leadership role of the Sunnis,” Popp said.

Another possible course of action that could be pursued by the Turkish president would be to let “the issue disappear from headlines in exchange for some Saudi concessions, most likely in the sphere of the Qatar embargo,” Popp added in reference to the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. “Given Trump’s determination to protect [Crown Prince Mohammed], the latter course seems more likely to me.”